Kyrgzstan: How Trading Democracy for Stability Actually Doesn't Work

In the way that a broken clock is right twice a day, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was right in 2005 when she said, referring to the Middle East, that “for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy…and we achieved neither.”

This statement is accurate, but only in a superficial, unsatisfying way.  Rice’s main points — that sacrificing democracy and human rights in the name of stability has been unsuccessful, and that stability cannot be entirely divorced from democracy — are important.  In the past decades, it’s become clear that democracy and stability reinforce one another.  What to do about this, however, was not exactly well thought out by the administration that Rice served.

Stability is the last refuge of many non-democratic leaders, but there’s little evidence that these leaders can ensure stability in their own countries or internationally.  As Rice pointed out, supporting stability over democracy in the Middle East has often led to greater instability.  The Shah  was supposed to bring stability to Iran and to the region at large, but many of the region’s current problems are actually linked to that regime and to U.S support.  Throughout the Arab world, authoritarian regimes have also shown that they are unable to deliver stability.  This isn’t only true in the Muslim world.  Does anybody think that the strongman regime of Vladimir Putin has brought stability to the former Soviet Union?  Stability in Russia itself is far from guaranteed, particularly given recent events in the North Caucasus.

Some people use China as an example of a country that has preserved stability while giving little, if any, concessions on democracy.  But as we saw earlier this month in Xinjiang, stability in China is more fragile than many realize.  The perception that China’s authoritarian regime has been able to guarantee domestic stability in recent years is more a triumph of media suppression than anything else.

As we move away from the aggressive democracy rhetoric of the middle years of the Bush administration, it’s important for the new administration not to fall into the stability trap: that is, not to think that restricting freedom and democracy is the best way to guarantee stability and other critical American interests, or to think that democracy is a destabilizing force.  This line, which remains powerful for many in the west, is used by authoritarian and undemocratic leaders around the world to maintain western, and particularly American, support for their regimes while offering very little genuine democratic reform.

Focusing on democracy only after stability is guaranteed has a powerful, almost logical, appeal. Too often, though, it is a way to postpone democratic reforms altogether.  If authoritarian leaders could actually deliver on their promise of domestic and regional stability, there would be a good reason to support this line (particularly if we aren’t too concerned about human rights and other issues in these regimes). But the evidence increasingly shows that this is usually a false promise.

A good example of this is Kyrgyzstan. An important transit point for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the willingness of both the Bush and Obama administration to ignore the country’s increasingly undemocratic trends in return for cooperation — specifically the use of the Manas Air Force Base — and promises of stability is a strategy that may well lead to an unstable and hostile Kyrgyzstan in a few years.

The broader challenge for the U.S. is to develop policies that reintegrate democracy with stability.  Accordingly, American and allied interests to enhance stability should include working with foreign governments on more seriously pursuing democratic reform.  Strategies for supporting democratic growth, particularly in countries with which the U.S. has an essentially friendly relationship, should seek to bolster stability of political life in those countries, rather than occur on separate tracks disaggregated from the rest of U.S. and western efforts.  If the Obama administration is able to do this, unlike Secretary Rice’s broken clock, they will be right more than twice a day.